Federal Courts and Family Law: Will the Courts Open Federal Court Doors to Domestic Relations Disputes?


Linda S Mullenix

9 Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases 314


This article previews the issues and arguments in Ankenbrandt v. Richards, on the Supreme Court’s appellate docket for the 1991-92 Term. Ankenbrandt raises two related issues. The first issue is whether the Supreme Court will continue to recognize a domestic relations exception to federal court jurisdiction. If the Court does not continue to recognize a domestic relations exception, or limits its scope, then the second question is whether a federal court can abstain from exercising its jurisdiction over a diversity-based family tort action.

Federal courts hear two kinds of cases: those involving federal questions, and those involving disputes between citizens of different states. Despite this broad jurisdictional reach, the federal courts have long been closed to family disputes, even when the family members reside in different states. Simply put, federal courts have been unwilling to hear family-law matters, which the federal courts have insisted are properly resolved in state court. This closed-door policy is called the "domestic relations" exception to federal court jurisdiction. Thus, in Ankenbrandt v. Richards, the Court will re-examine one of the longest-running and most persistently held exceptions to federal court diversity jurisdiction. If the Court decides to open the door a crack, this case could have potentially wide-reaching consequences for litigant access to federal courts to resolve various domestic relations problems.

In general, abstention doctrines permit a federal court to decline to exercise properly invoked federal jurisdiction. In Ankenbrandt, the district court applied a particular branch of abstention doctrine, so-called "Younger" abstention. See Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). Younger abstention, as the Supreme Court originally articulated the doctrine, requires a federal court to decline its jurisdiction in deference to a pending parallel state-court criminal prosecution. This branch of abstention is based on notions of "Our Federalism," a doctrine of federal-state comity. In subsequent cases, the Supreme Court has applied Younger abstention to pending parallel state civil proceedings, as well.

A federal court's application of abstention doctrine is discretionary, and therefore Ankenbrandt raises the question whether the district court appropriately applied Younger abstention to decline its jurisdiction. The facts raise the abstention issue in a highly problematic posture, because there was no pending parallel state proceeding ― a prerequisite to application of the abstention doctrine in all other Younger cases. A subsidiary issue, then, is whether a state's continuing supervision over custody and child support is a pending parallel proceeding for Younger purposes.It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court deals with this basic factual problem in its consideration of the abstention issue. A distinct possibility is that the Court will simply conclude that Younger abstention does not apply on the facts of this case, and limit its holding to that narrow ruling.

More broadly, Ankenbrandt raises the question whether Younger abstention should apply if the Court chooses to eliminate the domestic relations exception, or to further limit its scope. This question generally asks whether, in an appropriately raised case, a federal court can use the Younger abstention doctrine to decline to hear a domestic-relations diversity tort action in the interests of comity and in deference to a pending parallel state proceeding. Because the facts in Ankenbrandt do not present this issue squarely, the Supreme Court may decline to issue a broad pronouncement on the scope of Younger abstention in domestic relations cases properly before the federal courts.

Finally, the Supreme Court may altogether sidestep issuing any major pronouncement concerning the scope of the domestic relations exception to federal court jurisdiction. It may do this by simply deciding that Ankenbrandt involves a tortious-injury lawsuit between former family members, raised in diversity jurisdiction and therefore outside the existing domestic relations exception. If the Supreme Court takes this analytical route, as the American Civil Liberties Union urges in its friend-of-the-court brief, then the Supreme Court will leave to Congress, or to a future Supreme Court case, the wholesale reconsideration of the domestic relations exception to federal court jurisdiction.

Full Citation

Linda S. Mullenix, Federal Courts and Family Law: Will the Courts Open Federal Court Doors to Domestic Relations Disputes? 1991-92 Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases 316.